The newest trend among county boards appears to be closing meetings under legally and ethically dubious premises.
The local leader is, of course, the Grant County Board, which defined the term “dubious” on four separate occasions during 2012. The second, involving the hiring of a county employee, forced a revote of hiring approval. The first, as you know, was the can’t-we-all-just-get-along Administrative Committee meeting last June that (1) was not properly conducted in closed session because the personnel exemption cannot apply to county supervisors because they’re not county employees, and (2) didn’t work anyway, as the following County Board meeting proved.
Not to be outdone, the county board managed to show its disdain for the state Open Meetings Law twice within a month. On Nov. 27 the Administrative Committee held a closed-session meeting of nearly two hours to interview candidates for the replacement of retired Sup. Ivan Farness of Muscoda.
The reason, as we reported Dec. 26: County Board chair Larry Wolf “said he felt the closed-door interviews would be best for two reasons — potential candidates would feel free to answer any potentially sensitive questions that may be asked of them, and no candidate would have an unfair advantage by hearing the questions first and having time to think of an answer.”
The second rationale is ridiculous; using that line of reasoning, candidate forums should never be held since one candidate might be able to think up the answer to a question before his or her competitor(s).
Wolf’s first rationale apparently is based on a 1987 opinion by Attorney General Donald Hanaway that wasn’t about appointments to county boards, but to county board committees. Section 19.85 of Wisconsin statutes lists the legal exemptions from the Open Meetings Law, including personnel issues. But the state Open Records Law specifically states that elected officials are not government employees, which means an issue affecting elected officials is not exempt from the Open Meetings Law. (That was the same reason the June committee meeting was improperly in closed session.)
It is also a blatant abuse of the spirit of open government to conduct closed-door hearings to select elected officials. Was anyone from Farness’ County Board district (other than the three people the committee interviewed) able to view the candidates for himself or herself? It would have been much better to hold a special election to fill Farness’ County Board seat with two elections already scheduled this year, Feb. 19 and April 2.
Then, in that further abusive spirit, the county board voted Dec. 18 to implement a different benefit system for Sheriff’s Department deputies and sergeants, on a 13–2 vote with no public debate. Which prompted Chief Deputy Jack Johnson to say, “You asked for the motion and then the vote, and that’s it. I think I know why.”
Johnson’s suspicions don’t meet the criminal beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, but they don’t have to. The board did discuss the two-tier proposal in closed session, according to Wolf, though according to attorney Andy Phillips the board didn’t discuss the merits of the two-tier system in closed session.
If you agree with Johnson, consider further that neither Sup. Carol Beals of Platteville nor Sup. John Patcle of Potosi, who voted against the two-tier system, said a word during the meeting about why they opposed the proposal. All this makes it appear as though supervisors worked out their positions away from the county’s voters and taxpayers, doesn’t it? (Another legal term for you: “appearance of impropriety.”)
The Sheriff’s Department has the only unionized employees in Grant County. The Open Meetings Law does include an exemption for discussion of collective bargaining strategies. However, Wolf said the county’s position is that the two-tier system is not a negotiable item, which means the county board shouldn’t have discussed it in closed session.
This week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper also includes a story about the strange decision of the Lafayette County Board to allow the board to exclude its own supervisors from closed-session committee meetings.
County Board Chair Jack Sauer said the resolution was needed after an attendee at a closed-session committee meeting then told people outside the meeting what had taken place in the meeting. Sauer called that “unethical.” That is unethical, but the resolution the county board passed wouldn’t have applied to what happened, because it covers county supervisors, not anyone else.
If closed-session information has been improperly leaked in public, the correct response is to sanction the leaker. If it’s an elected official, elective bodies have options for sanctions, as the Prairie du Chien Common Council showed by stripping the title of council president from an alderman who publicly spoke about an executive-session meeting. If it’s a government employee, that employee can be reprimanded, suspended or fired. The opportunity for abuse by a majority of a county board against one of its members for what a majority judges to be “a conflict of interest,” whether or not it actually is, should be obvious. Such an instance would also deprive that supervisor’s constituents of representation.
In every case listed in this column, the spirit of the Open Meetings Law and Open Records Law, as spelled out in section 19.81 of Wisconsin Statutes — “In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business” — is being abused by the people we entrust through our vote with county government. Too bad this year’s spring elections don’t include county board elections.